Monet, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Matisse, Chagall, Klee, Whistler, Rodin, van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Magritte, Dalí, Miró, Johns, Warhol, Hockney, Lichtenstein, Bacon, Duchamp, Rothko, Man Ray — they are all here. There is nothing quite like the feeling of coming face-to-face for the first time with a sensational masterpiece. For instance, Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Mural on Indian Red Ground,” a 6-by-8-foot canvas, is considered one of his best works from his most important period.
At the same time, photos of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s 1979 Revolution, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded him as the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, glare down at you. Welcome! You are in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art whose atrium spirals downward like an inverted version of the Guggenheim Museum. Here is the home of the finest collections of modern Western art in the world with a value estimated at $3 billion!
The museum was conceived by the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, wife of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and opened to international acclaim in 1977. Just 15 months later, in the face of a massive popular uprising, the couple left the country on what was officially called a “vacation.” The revolution replaced the monarchy with an Islamic Republic weeks later. Farah Diba Pahlavi chose a cousin, Kamran Diba, as the architect and founding director for the new museum that she would fill with modern Iranian and Western art. During a whirlwind 10-day buying spree in May 1975, the museum’s acquisitions team came home with 125 works, including important pieces by Picasso such as “Open Window on the Rue de Penthièvre in Paris”, Calder’s “The Orange Fish” mobile, Alberto Giacometti’s “Standing Woman I” and “Walking Man I”, Mark Rothko’s “Sienna, Orange and Black on Dark Brown” and “No. 2 , Roy Lichtenstein’s “Roto Broil”; Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait”… Farah Diba Pahlavi also pushed for the acquisition of Francis Bacon’s “Reclining Man With Sculpture”.
The new regime could have sold or destroyed the Western art masterpieces. Instead, the museum was closed, its treasures hidden in a concrete basement. The Islamic Republic’s first comprehensive exhibition of the Western art collection was in 2005, and some works, such as the Pollock, are on permanent display. Others, including Renoir’s “Gabrielle With Open Blouse” (1907), featuring a woman with naked breasts, have never been publicly shown. After a 32-month renovation, the museum reopened a few months ago and will publish its own study of the collection that will require six volumes to tell the story.